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From 29 December 1999 Issue

School Lunches May Add Soy Products
Associated Press

December 23, WASHINGTON (AP) -- Worried about the fat in kids' meals, federal officials want to let schools and day care centers serve tofu, veggieburgers and other soy products as meat substitutes in federally subsidized lunches.

The Agriculture Department is proposing to drop its restrictions on how much soy can be used in meals. Under current rules, soy can only be a food additive and only in amounts of less than 30 percent.

President Reagan's budget crunchers tried to make tofu a meat substitute nearly two decades ago -- at the same time they tried to reclassify ketchup as a vegetable -- but they beat a hasty retreat when the idea became a lightning rod for opponents of his spending cuts. USDA officials deny their motive now is to save money, arguing instead that soy is a good source of protein.

"Its time has come,'' said Shirley Watkins, USDA's undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services. ``I think people are more receptive than they would have been five or 10 years ago.''

Beef, pork and poultry producers are fighting the move, but schools like it because they are having trouble complying with government limits on the fat content of meals. And for the fast-growing soy industry, the $6 billion school lunch program offers a vast new market and a way to introduce families to the expanding array of new, better-tasting products that have been developed in recent years.

Although the proposal would allow schools to offer meatless entrees -- tofu-stuffed ravioli is one menu possibility -- nutritionists say schools are more likely to use it to increase the amount of soy that they blend into their standard fare: burgers, tacos and the like.

USDA's proposal has its roots in a decision the department made in 1994 to start requiring schools to meet the government's dietary guidelines for fat and nutrients. That meant that the fat content in school menus could no longer exceed 30 percent over a week. Schools have cut the amount of cheese in pizzas and the number of meatballs they serve with spaghetti, but they still struggle to stay under the limit.

The soy proposal has pit soybean farmers against cattle ranchers and other livestock producers, who argue that children won't get sufficient protein or enough iron and zinc if they eat less meat. A standard soyburger, which contains no meat, has 3 grams of fat, compared to 16 in a beef patty, and a significant amount of calcium. But the soyburger has a third less protein than the beef patty and no iron or zinc.

Vegetarians and animal rights activists have flooded USDA with letters and email messages praising the proposal, but the change may have an impact they don't want. Allowing a higher soy content will make it easier for schools to keep meat on their menus, said Carol Tucker Foreman, director of the Consumer Federation of America's Food Policy Institute. "There is every reason to believe the proposed rule will perpetuate the role of meat and poultry in the school food programs, not threaten it,'' she said.

Watkins said she expects the department to make a final decision on the change by mid-February. USDA approved yogurt as a meat substitute in 1997.

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